Listen: Julie Edwards in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
James (not his real name) was a teenager when he was subjected to isolation in detention. For 22 hours a day, he was locked in his cell. For the other two hours he was permitted out of his cell with a small group of fellow prisoners.
When James left prison and returned to the community, he found things so challenging that he turned his bathroom into a makeshift cell, sleeping in the bathtub and preparing his food in the room. He returned to custody after a short period of time.
Irreversible physical and mental harm.
This distressing story is one of several featured in a new report by Jesuit Social Services, “All alone: Young adults in the Victorian justice system”, which raises a number of concerns regarding the welfare and treatment of young adults aged 18 to 24 in Victorian prisons.
“The key aims of any effective criminal justice system must be to reduce offending and successfully rehabilitate people to achieve safer, more cohesive communities,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.
“But the use of isolation can severely undermine these objectives and can cause irreversible physical and mental harm.”
Use of isolation for months or years
Ms Edwards is also concerned about the lack of transparency and reporting of the use of isolation.
“Because we work with people on their release from prison, we know that some spend months, even years, in isolation. They have little contact with staff and little to no access to programs or activities,” said Ms Edwards.
From isolation into the community
“The thought that some people could be released directly from isolation into the community and be expected to make a successful transition is staggering but this is what regularly happens.” Ms Edwards says that brain development continues until at least the mid 20s and that young adults are particularly vulnerable to lasting damage.
Outcomes for young people in prison
While the report has a focus on isolation, it features a range of recommendations to improve outcomes for young adults in the prison system including:
- That the Victorian Government legislate for a presumption against the use of isolation, with isolation only permissible in rare cases where immediate safety to persons is a concern;
- That a minimum workforce qualification for all custodial prison staff be introduced;
- That the dual track system be expanded to include 21 to 24 year olds;
- That the Victorian Government invest in incorporating specialist youth units in adult prisons that house young adults aged 18 to 24 to meet their developmental needs.
Prison should be last resort
Jesuit Social Services believes that prison should always be a last resort. We acknowledge that sometimes prison is necessary, particularly in cases of violent crime. But when a State takes the serious step of removing a person’s liberty, certain standards must be met to ensure the human rights of those incarcerated, to rehabilitate detainees and to reduce re-offending.
The report – “All alone: Young adults in the Victorian justice system”– raises a number of concerns regarding the welfare and treatment of young adults in Victorian prisons, and questions whether these standards are being met.
Mental and physical impact
The increasing number of young adults in Victoria’s adult prisons is of great concern. The mental and physical health of these young people when they emerge from incarceration has often deteriorated significantly, while the barriers to reintegrating with the community are high. Too many young people are reoffending and returning to prison.
The system can do better
It has been well established that young adults are especially vulnerable to the effects of detention. At the same time, young adults are more amenable to rehabilitation than older adults. Our justice system can – and must – do much better in transforming the behaviour and potential of these young adults.
Prisons have a purpose and present an opportunity: rehabilitation must be their focus, a chance to work towards a safer community. Jesuit Social Services believe that the safety of the community is best enhanced by maximising strategies which reduce the potential for reoffending and promote rehabilitation. We must minimise harm to young adults in prison.
Strong accountability and transparency
Having served their time, they must be supported to lead productive lives. Just as importantly, preparations and support for transitioning back into the community must begin well before release. And, crucially, we need to have strong transparency and accountability to ensure that the treatment of young people meets their needs and upholds their human rights.
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